From the Library: Music at the Crystal Palace

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by Elrik Merlin on Saturday, 13 February, 2010

Built of the materials that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, the Crystal Palace at Sydenham cost no less than a million and a half sterling. It is composed entirely of glass and iron, and was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton. The Palace from its lofty eminence is visible for miles in every direction. Its principal hall, or nave, is 1,608 feet long, while the central transept is 390 feet long by 120 feet broad, and rises to a height of 175 feet. On either side of the Palace are the water towers, each 282 feet high, and these add greatly to the general effect, best appreciated from the delightful grounds, which cover in all some 200 acres. Our view shows the Upper Terrace, the Central Transept, and the northern Water Tower.

The Great Exhibition brought together exhibits from around the Empire for a few short months. After that, the question was what to do with the enourmous iron and glass construction. A couple of years later a group of gentlemen founded the Crystal Palace Company and had it re-erected, enlarged, in Sydenham, in the parks that formerly surrounded Penge Palace.

It re-opened in 1854 and sported essentially a standing exhibition consisting of a number of “courts” showing past civilisations, the products of various parts of Britain and more, while in the extensive park surrounding the building there were fountains taller than those at Versailles, and outdoor exhibits that included islands with recreations of “extinct animals” such as dinosaurs — which are still there today. You can read about them in this copy of the 1854 Guidebook.

The Palace, regrettably, is no longer with us as it burned down in a great fire, possibly fuelled by escaping gas from a split pipe, in 1936. Its heyday was in the latter part of the 19th century, when the Palace and its gardens were visited by crowds of people, generally arriving by train at one of the two stations.

A recurring feature of the Palace was its use as a large concert venue, and it was the site of the Handel Festival every year right up to the early part of the 20th century. Its size was prodigious.

Owing to the circumstance that the Handel Festival is always held at the Crystal Palace, the orchestra in the central transept of the Palace of Glass is known as the Handel Orchestra. It can accommodate no fewer than 4,000 persons. The dimensions of the transept, which has a diameter twice as great as that of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, can only be realised when it is crowded, as in our picture, which shows in progress the great temperance fête that is held at the Crystal Palace every year. The organ, which is supplied with air by hydraulic machinery, boasts 4384 pipes, and cost £6,000. The acoustic properties of the building are admirable for large volumes of sound.No doubt other composers were heard there too, and we can imagine brass bands in bandstands in the grounds as well as large-scale classical concerts in the Handel Orchestra.

Thus today’s programme attempts to re-create the atmosphere in and around the Sydenham Crystal Palace in late Victorian times with selections of classical and light classical music. You’ll hear plenty of Handel, of course, along with other contemporary composers such as Mendelssohn, Chopin, and of course Strauss and other Viennese composers. In addition to orchestral works, you’ll hear solo piano performances and you can enjoy the sound of the brass band playing contemporary dance music. There’s even a couple of excerpts from Gilbert & Sullivan along with some of Mr Sullivan’s well-known overtures.

If you would like to learn more about the Sydenham Crystal Palace, you may find this television programme of interest. And don’t forget to join us for part 5 of Moon Over Morocco at 11am and 7pm SLT (7pm and 3am GMT).

From the Library is produced by Radio Riel in conjunction with the Alexandrian Free Library Consortium of Second Life. You can listen to the programme now at — or click here to link straight to your player if your browser is set up to do so. Today’s programme is presented by Elrik Merlin.

For more information on the Alexandrian Free Library, current exhibits and the work of Consortium members in general, please visit the Alexandrian Free Library website, or one of their branches in-world.


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